LAPD Captain Pioneered Cold Case Probes

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Jim Tatreau was a captain in the Los Angeles Police Department when he decided to push for a way to clear the backlog of unsolved homicide cases. The veteran officer was one of the first to promote the idea of a cold case investigations team long before the idea became fodder for television shows.


This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Madeleine Brand.


And I'm Alex Cohen.

The first of few memorial services will be held today for Captain Jim Tatreau of the Los Angeles Police Department. He died last month. Tatreau was instrumental in establishing the cold case unit at the LAPD.

BRAND: The cold case unit looks into unsolved homicides. Cold case units have been glamorized by the movies and by television.

But as DAY TO DAY Karen Grigsby Bates discovered, real life cold case work, well, it last a lot longer than several television seasons.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES: Los Angeles has one of the highest homicide rates in the country. Ten years ago, there were more than 9,000 unsolved homicides dating back to the 1960s on the books. That's about 45 percent of all homicide cases. Back then, Jim Tatreau headed the elite robbery homicide unit of the LAPD.

He thought an inter-agency team of police, prosecutors and forensics people could put a dent in the city's unsolved homicide rate. So he started a conversation about that. Dave Lampkin is a retired detective who worked with Jim Tatreau.

He remembered how crushed they all were when Tatreau's boss initially nixed the idea of a cold case unit.

Mr. DAVE LAMPKIN (Retired Detective, Cold Case Homicide Unit, Los Angeles Police Department): I was really disheartened and then again, Jim told me not to worry, it's not over yet. He kind of gave me that wink that he used to give people.

GRIGSBY BATES: Then a few days later, Lampkin's phone rang. It was Tatreau.

Mr. LAMPKIN: First thing he says to me, he says, we got a unit. He says, you're going to be in charge. And he says you got six detectives and we want the detectives picked by the end of next week.

GRIGSBY BATES: And the LAPD's cold case unit was born. In the last decade or so, more and more units like this have sprung up around the country. TV shows like "Cold Case" have glamorized their work.

(Soundbite of "Cold Case")

Ms. KATHRYN MORRIS (Actress): (As Lilly Rush) The timing adds up, Jill Shelby(ph) beaten at a neighbor's house, found the next morning - case was never solved.

Mr. JOHN FINN (Actor): (As John Stillman) Are you saying we should open a 27-year-old case now?

Ms. MORRIS: (As Lilly Rush) There's new direction.

GRIGSBY BATES: Meet Tom Mauriello(ph). He knows why more of these cases are reopening.

Professor TOM MAURIELLO (University of Maryland): If you really look at what has changed in the last 10, 15 years for us to believe all of a sudden that we want to look at cases that are five, 10 years old, and it's DNA.

GRIGSBY BATES: Mauriello teaches criminalistics and forensic science at the University of Maryland. He says every state now mandates DNA collection when felony arrests occur. Sometimes the computer makes a match with previously connected DNA. Mauriello says that match may lead to something - may.

Prof. MAURIELLO: Of course, now, just getting a hit in itself doesn't make a case, then you have to take that cold case out and then you have to reinvestigate it and apply that new information to the case.

GRIGSBY BATES: Andy Rosenzweig is a retired New York City detective. He now consults with other police departments that want to set up their own cold case units.

Mr. ANDY ROSENZWEIG (Retired New York City Detective): There have been an awful lot of people who've gotten away with murder. And that doesn't sit well with really any responsible person in the criminal justice system.

GRIGSBY BATES: Rosenzweig says the pain of victim's families often compels police to continue work on their own on homicides, long after they occur.

Mr. ROSENZWEIG: I'd say it's fairly common for an officer to be with a case for years and with an uncomfortable feeling that it's unresolved.

GRIGSBY BATES: The search to close a long cold homicide case usually doesn't rely on machines like the high-tech stuff in this scene from the TV series, "CSI."

(Soundbite of show "CSI")

Unidentified Man: (As Character) (Unintelligible) that gas chronograph mass spectrometer thing. We've no problems there.

GRIGSBY BATES: Instead, it requires a lot of calling, trolling through old paperwork, and tedious research. Andy Rosenzweig says TV scenarios where crimes are instantly solved from a single fingerprint or bullet casing were great for crimes on TV. Not so in real life.

Mr. ROSENZWEIG: It sets up unreasonable expectations. And often what they see on the TV show, for a variety of reasons, won't be able to be applied to their particular case.

GRIGSBY BATES: Recently, a group of cold cases were closed out in L.A. courtesy of the unit Jim Tatreau started. Work from Tatreau's unit enabled the LAPD to arrest Chester Turner for the murders of 10 women over 10 years. It's the largest unsolved serial homicide in the city's recent history. That was Jim Tatreau's final legacy before his death at 58 of brain cancer. Turner's arrest was headline news so most Angelenos realize he's been caught. Dave Lampkin says they don't realize what they might have been spared.

Mr. LAMPKIN: Jim's actions probably saved a lot of people's lives. Those are repetitive offenders, and if you don't get them now, someone else's going to be killed two years from now, four years from now, 10 years from now.

GRIGSBY BATES: An LAPD memorial service with full honors for Tatreau is being held today. A family funeral mass follows tomorrow.

Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News.

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